Joe Rozell was hired as Oakland County’s elections director in January 2007. Having enjoyed a stint as a financial analyst with the county’s Department of Management and Budget, he is a certified clerk and has had prior experience overseeing local elections. Rozell not only spends time preparing ballots and helping with oversight of Oakland County’s election processes, but is also involved in officiating high school sports. In addition, Rozell is a member of the Huntington Woods Zoning Board of Appeals, as well as a former chairman of the Huntington Woods Planning Commission.
With the primary election upcoming on Tuesday, Aug. 7, what is it like in your office right now preparing for the election? Describe, from your past experiences, what an election night is like for you and your office?
JR: Things are definitely busy. Not only are we preparing for the August primary, but we are also preparing for that special primary that will take place Sept. 5. So we are sort of pulling double duty right now. All of the ballots have been delivered to the local clerks, so they’re issuing absentee (ballots) and they have their ballots in hand for the precincts on election day. Now we are conducting all of the training of the election inspectors throughout the county. We are definitely keeping busy.
Election night is busy. That is when we are compiling all of the results from our 550 various precincts around the county. That data comes into us electronically on election night after the polls close. So the results are compiled electronically and then posted to our website. We’re monitoring the various precincts that are coming in and then we are letting the communities know once we’ve received all of their precincts, etc. It’s a late night. We are there probably until sometime 2 a.m., 3 a.m. because even though the results come in electronically, there are certain documents, like the poll book, that have to be physically driven to the county. So we have to wait for all of those precincts to report and compile all of the hard copies of the information.
Do you expect an increase in the turnout of voters in the primary and general elections this year? Why or why not?
JR: Absolutely. We broke a record in 2008 with the presidential turnout. Seventy-two percent (voter turnout) was a record for our county. I certainly think we will exceed that in the general election in November and, from what I’m seeing, I think we are going to see an increased turnout in August, as well. The number of requests for absentee ballots has increased in the county, and I think that with certain millages and proposals that are on the ballot, that is also causing some added interest to the primary election.
I think some of (the increased turnout) is due to tax issues on the ballot. I think that all of the township offices are on the ballot this year, so folks that want to vote in the primary for their local township offices. This is their opportunity to do that. There are some races on the local level that are drawing interest. So I think that is also contributing to what we think will be a higher voter turnout for August. I think in general when the economy is down, folks have an added interest in the politics and their representatives. That is probably contributing as well.
How did you become involved with the Oakland County Elections Division and was it your aspiration to work on elections?
JR: Interestingly, I’ve always had an interest in elections and politics. I decided when I went to college I was going to get my degree in public administration because I knew I wanted to work in government. I started out working in county government. I did my internship here. Then I left for a short period and went into city government, where I was a city clerk and a part of my responsibility was elections. Then I went into city management as an assistant city manager and then city manager. Then I came back to the county, worked in the Department of Management and Budget. And this job opened up as the director of elections (when) my predecessor had retired. I kind of felt like it was a dream job. And applied for it and was hired. It’s been an interesting and exciting 5 years so far.
As I’m sure you’re aware, some vote-tabulating computer cards were recently stolen from the West Bloomfield Township Clerk’s Office. How serious do you view this situation? What if anything has the Clerk’s Office done to advise the township clerk and her staff? Is there reason to be concerned about the integrity of the election results in West Bloomfield? Why or why not?
JR: I think any time that equipment or ballots or anything are missing or misplaced, it’s serious. We are working very closely with West Bloomfield to address this particular theft and make sure there are safeguards in place so that the public can feel secure about the election results that come out of West Bloomfield. We’ve replaced those (vote-tabulating) cards. The placement cards have been reprogrammed, and steps have been taken so that in the event that the cards that were stolen were somehow reintroduced on election night, they would not be able to work with our database.
We worked very closely with the township clerk and her staff to make sure that voting continues in West Bloomfield. They have replaced those memory cards, and then we went ahead and had them reprogrammed and instituted several layers of safeguards to ensure that nothing can happen with the legitimate election results in West Bloomfield Township.
No. I would not be concerned (about the election’s integrity). Michigan has a lot of checks and balances in the election process, and unlike a lot of states, I think Michigan is very progressive in ensuring the integrity in the process. There are a number of safeguards in the law that exist right now that would prevent tampering with election results. In light of these memory cards being stolen, we have implemented additional safeguards with the West Bloomfield Township Clerk’s Office as sort of a belt-and-suspenders, if you will, to make sure that nothing (bad) happens and that the integrity of the election is not compromised. I don’t think the public has anything to worry about, anything to be concerned about as far as election results in West Bloomfield Township.
Gov. Rick Snyder recently vetoed additions to Michigan’s voter ID law, including ID’s for absentee voting and requiring voters to affirm their citizenship. There is a debate in states across the country regarding strengthening voter ID laws. Do you feel that the ID laws for elections currently in place are sufficient enough or would more regulation be helpful?
JR: I think that the governor’s objection to both the citizens’ question and the ID requirement were that they both were passed in very close proximity to the August primary. The concern (was that), as far as implementation administratively and implementation with the voters, making them aware of these new requirements, was just too tight of a timeframe. It’s my understanding that these bills are going to be reintroduced and the governor likely — with modifications — will sign them.
I think Michigan has a good voter ID law. There is sort of a loophole, if you will, that if you go to the polls to cast your ballot, you’re asked to show ID. If you go to the clerk’s office to request your absentee ballot and you can vote it right in the office and return it, you’re not asked for ID. So I think this probably just applies the same level of treatment to an absentee voter as it does to an individual who goes to the polling place or the precinct to vote. So I think it’s a good thing. I think we will begin treating everybody (alike) and holding everyone to the same standards.
And as far as the citizenship question — of course, you have to be a citizen to vote — the fact is that there are some individuals who are non-citizens who were added to the voter rolls. So they may think that they are registered and so I think asking the question of the voter in the polling place sort of provides another level of integrity, another check in the process to make sure that non-citizens in fact are not voting.
What changes do you expect to see in the near future regarding election laws and the way elections are run and tabulated?
JR: We have seen a lot of legislation in recent years, both federally at the national level and at the state level. Elections is a constantly evolving field, no question about that. So what we’ve seen recently is a move toward consolidation, where school districts were moved to the November ballot to try to increase turnout and save districts money by placing them on that November, even-year ballot. So we’ve seen efforts for consolidation. I think we may continue to see those types of things, possibly requiring the villages that don’t already hold their elections in November will be required to move to that date to further save money and further consolidate the process.
I don’t think we are going to see Internet voting or touch-screen voting in the future. Michigan was one of the few states that did the right thing by going with paper ballots and optical scan equipment. It’s hard to tell exactly what will be on the horizon. One never knows. We will continue our office, county Clerk Bill Bullard, Jr. and myself will continue to work with the (state) Legislature to make sure whatever changes are introduced are beneficial to Oakland County.